Michael Pittman Jr. embraces his heavy workload during the Colts' 4-game winning streak

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Michael Pittman Jr. embraces being the offensive workhorse for the Indianapolis Colts.

After catching two passes in a 39-38 loss to Cleveland six weeks ago, he pleaded publicly to take on a larger role. Quarterback Gardner Minshew responded by looking Pittman's way more, and Pittman has delivered with the best football of his four-year career, finishing Sunday with a TD catch at Tennessee to give Indy its fourth straight win and keep the Colts (7-5) in playoff position.

Coincidence? Hardly.

“It’s unbelievable,” coach Shane Steichen said, referring to Pittman after the 31-28 overtime victory. “He’s consistent every time he goes out there. Just the consistency he plays with week in, week out, the preparation he puts into it, his toughness and his physicality, it’s special.”

Pittman was born to play this role.

At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, he combines the size teams crave with the physical and mental toughness of elite receivers. He grew up as the son of a Super Bowl champion but never relied on his lineage to forge his career path. Instead, he worked relentlessly to fine-tune his own skills.

It shows.

After acknowledging his October complaints really came from the frustration of losing, Pittman has played like an All-Pro. He has 45 receptions, 400 yards and two TDs over the last five games, catching at least eight passes in each one.

But it's about more than numbers. On Sunday, the 26-year-old fought off two defenders to haul in a 9-yard catch on Indy's first play of overtime before faking out Sean Murphy-Bunting with an inside move to free himself for the 4-yard scoring play. Despite catching 11 of 16 balls thrown his direction and recording 105 yards, Pittman though he could have been better.

“I should have caught more because I feel like there were a couple I probably should have caught,” he said. “It’s always good to come out and do it consistently. There were some tough catches I should have made (Sunday) that I would like back, but that’s just how it goes."

Pittman has 87 catches, 889 yards and four scores with five games remaining and is on pace to shatter his previous career highs as he heads into the offseason looking for a contract extension.

Since rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5 and 2021 rushing champion Jonathan Taylor has missed five of 12 games with ankle and thumb injuries, the Colts have needed Pittman to make this playoff push.

WHAT’S WORKING

Special teams. This unit was the difference Sunday. Indy returned a blocked punt for a TD and jarred another loose before Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse could kick it. The second miscue by Tennessee led to one of Matt Gay's four field goals. Colts punter Rigoberto Sanchez averaged 51.2 yards on five kicks.

Indy's performance had repercussions for the Titans: Stonehouse suffered a season-ending injury, and coach Mike Vrabel fired special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman on Monday.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Finishing drives. Indy's defense has been stingy enough lately to overcome this recurring problem. But the Colts know they must score more than one TD in five red-zone trips, which was the case Sunday.

STOCK UP

WR Alec Pierce. After a slow start, he's been getting more looks — and he's making plays. None was bigger than the 55-yard reception in overtime that set up Pittman's winning score. He had three catches for 100 yards and his first TD since December 2022.

STOCK DOWN

RT Blake Freeland and CB Jaylon Jones. The two rookies have both had solid seasons, but Sunday was not either player's best game. Jones couldn't run down Derrick Henry on his first TD run and gave up the tying score to DeAndre Hopkins. Freeland allowed pressure on two key sacks, one of which led to Minshew's lost fumble inside the Titans 10-yard line late in the first half.

INJURIES

Freeland replaced Braden Smith, who injured his knee and didn't finish the game. Smith has already missed four games this season. TE Drew Ogletree (foot) and CB JuJu Brents (quad) didn't play. The good news is run-stuffing DT Grover Stewart returns following a six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.

KEY NUMBER

6 — In each of the six games Stewart missed, Indy allowed at least 125 yards rushing, including 177 Sunday at Tennessee. That only happened twice in the six games before Stewart's suspension.

NEXT STEPS

The Colts keep finding ways to win. Against Carolina, it was two interception returns for TDs. Against New England, it was a stifling defense that kept the Patriots out of the end zone. On Sunday, it was converting the errant punts into two scores. With Indy likely facing backup quarterbacks in its next two games, at Cincinnati and against Pittsburgh, the league's No. 8 scoring offense could get a chance to shine.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL